Strangelove is back on

It was about three months ago that I heard from the organizers of the Bat Guano jamboree. Previously, I’d been informed that the latest event, set for August in San Jose, was again on hold—the result of an uncertain road back from restrictions, lockdowns, etc. Now it’s back on, as life with all of its so-called normalcy, is back on. Therefore, my talk on Dr. Strangelove is back on, only it must be updated once again, this time with more nuances than I could have imagined previously.

Yeah—hyperbole. Not my thing, except when I’m stuck for a line that will catch the pithy truth. I’d almost said forget it. Did I want to resurrect a now three-year old presentation, squeeze it in between seminar schedules of my analytic training program? Have it interrupt the head-long (slight sarcasm here) path of Getting Real About Sex Addiction towards publication?

Of course I did.

Firstly, my ego wants me on stage talking to an audience, not just writing a book or essaying on this blog thing. Secondly, I’d presented at this conference before—in 2017, on the subject of Tommy, the rock opera—so I was familiar with its genteel and professional atmosphere, the boomer demographic that would welcome a treatise on sixties icons. Thirdly, this was a chance, finally, to talk about one of my favorite movies of all time, and to do so through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. I’d done that with my Tommy talk also, but less effectively, I think, having not quite integrated my Masterson/Klein material into the mix of Who biography. I further cluttered that presentation by trying to say too much in a single hour, which rendered me pressured, my “performance” at times stilted. That is, all except for the bit where I swung my arms windmill style, aping Pete Townsend as I played a recorded track of “Pinball Wizard” for the crowd. After the talk, some said they wanted to hear more music (and less of me, perhaps), so this time I’m determined to not make the same (kind of) mistake. Therefore, I got clips—film clips—set to illustrate what I have to say about Strangelove’s message.

Much of the focus will be on General Jack Ripper, the character who launches a nuclear attack on the old Soviet Union, believing the communists responsible for worldwide water contamination (fluoridation), which Ripper blames for his sexual impotence. Don’t all wars begin this way? Anyway, I present a scene or two depicting Ripper’s pathology, alongside a Peter Sellers Stan Laurel-like character who attempts to dissuade general nutjob from realizing his vengeful plan. The plot point is a spring-board for a mini lecture upon death instinct ala Sigmund Freud, followed by a slide or two about Object Relations Theory, and in particular the theories of Melanie Klein as they pertain to infantile neurosis, and the process of splitting as a psychic defense that keeps separate the internalized good and bad objects of our minds.

I reference these ideas to explain why Ripper can’t take in the empathetic presence of Sellers’ Captain Mandrake character, or why he can’t bring himself to take corrective action after he appears to express remorse for having launched the attack. He’s at war with his internal objects, I offer, and like many others, before and since, he can’t really bring himself to admit wrongdoing or seek redemption. Instead, lost in a split between good and evil, and feeling defeated at the hands of an ambiguous enemy, he commits suicide. In my talk, I imply that this characteristic is the corrupted core of many political or socially prominent figures, as well as more famous characters from literature (I’m thinking of Javert also from Les Miserables), which partly explains the lingering relevance of Strangelove.

There are other enduring features of the film, of course. I also touch upon themes of obsession: sexual and technological obsession; the delusion of characters who live in an enclosed and solipsistic world, oblivious as to how their actions will affect humanity, and juxtaposing their unconscious wishes about time (we will live forever, and our machines and systems will never fail!) with odd, time-bound concerns. Examples include General Turgidson’s promise that he’ll marry his secretary while he’s busy at the war room; or, Major Kong’s speech to his crew ahead of the bomb mission, which promises promotions for each and every one of them—as if that will matter in a post-holocaust world.

What I proclaim, and what I’ve been set to proclaim for two or three years, is that Strangelove was uniquely audacious to ask its audience to laugh at the present-day horrors of 1964. Two months after the assassination of JFK, and just two years after the Cuban missile crisis, it was surely a sensitive time to be laughing at what was most ominous about the cold war. In preparing this talk, and indeed, in suggesting that Strangelove was “as relevant as ever”, I was barely conscious that this was not quite true of our time…at the time. After all, despite the ubiquity of real-life Rippers and Turgidson’s in our mad men world, I couldn’t quite say (climate change notwithstanding) that we were staring down the barrel of an imminent, world-impacting danger.

Then Covid came along and literally halted my talk. I mean that its previously projected debut, in Charleston last year, was cancelled. Instead, like everyone else, I scrambled to buy toilet paper, come to grips with concepts like social distancing and lockdown, and prepared to use Telehealth tools (my I-phone, Zoom technology) to see patients for…how long was it gonna be originally? A month or two?

Denial

I now get to weave into my talk that as much as Strangelove’s characters are in denial of their horror, we have likewise been in denial of ours. The analyst Glen Gabbard, writing in a recent issue of The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, observes that the world is in the grip of another plague. Death is everywhere, but many citizens have continued to open their shops as usual, go on vacations, and insist that they are free to do as they like. For many others, life is on hold. The passage of time is crushingly slow. One feels stuck. Diets are forgotten. Alcohol intake increases. Hugs disappear. As we collectively wait for Godot, perhaps wondering what our part in all this has been and may continue to be, we return to a semblance of normal, and so among other things, my “talk” is back on.

Wildfires will soon be back on. Hurricanes will be happening. That climate change thing, destined to have our present-day Strangeloves re-thinking that absurd mine-shaft plan, is on the horizon. And as we quietly register the passing of 4 million across the globe from Covid, we may even find ourselves quoting the Turgidson character: we’ve had our hair mussed.

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